Friday, April 8, 2011

You are not backing your data up!

Data backup: Examining common perception

20140109 Update: Added notice about Google Photo backup to bottom.

Hopefully I'm wrong, and you are backing up your data. However, I was recently trying to recover some data from a failed hard drive (hdd) for a client. Browsing some forums, I was surprised at how many people had misconceptions about what backing up data actually meant. I thought I'd go over the basics in hopes that I can inform people to the end of saving important data from the dark recesses of oblivion.

I think it important to dispel the misconception that storing your data on an external hard drive is the same thing as backing up your data. While it may be true, it is not implicitly correct: an external hard drive is only being used as a backup repository if the information held there is ALSO stored elsewhere, such as a laptop or desktop computer. To state it another way, if the information is located only on an external drive, it is not backed up. It is simply stored on an external hard drive. This is important because external hard drives are just as likely to fail (arguably, more likely) as internal drives.

Have a look a this professional infographic which demonstrates my point:

As I'm sure you gathered, information must exist simultaneously on some two devices, at least, to be qualified as a data backup. Ideally, three devices will contain the information or the information will be synchronized on update or some other fancy device. But that is beyond the scope of this article.


Storing your data only on an external hard drive is not backing it up. It must exist in two locations to be backed up.

What do I use to backup my data?

To state the obvious, backing up your data is a pain. There are some ways to make it more of an automatic process...but they cost money or take some reasonable initial effort. Unless you don't value your data, either option is worth it.

(1) You can buy an external usb powered and attached hdd. It will probably hold as much as your internal or more and if you are backing up the essentials (not the pirated movies), you can probably even get fancy and have 'incremental' backups. Just make a folder for each month...and copy over your Desktop, Documents, and Favorites. That covers 95% of average user stuff. Your emails are probably stored with yahoo or google or someone...and unless you use old or fancy programs, they store your data in those places. The primary drawbacks to backing up this way are: [1] It must be performed manually, or some software must be set to perform periodically. Don't forget to do this every couple of weeks (or, more frequently if warranted); [2] In the event of a local disaster or something, you could lose both copies of your data. For instance, a fire may consume both data copies...hopefully you were more lucky. Backing up to CDs or DVDs have the same drawbacks.

(2) You can purchase a backup software subscription such as carbonite or mozy. These programs are roughly $50/yr and include software which runs on your computer. They will attempt to backup common data (Desktop, Favorites, and Documents) by default...but also allow configuration so that other folders can be backed up as well. The good thing about these programs is that they perform their task update a file on your desktop, and it relatively quickly gets backed up by the software on your computer. Sweet. The downside of this software is that it must be properly only backs up what you tell it to, and sometimes backing up information like family videos takes special precaution (see note about carbonite and videos below).

_quick carbonite vs mozy comparison_
carbonite's advantage seems to be 'unlimited' data. mozy's is that it allows video. depending on what you are backing up, and how much data you have, either could be a better choice. i can say that carbonite's 'restore' process is pretty easy.


Some common backup comments (and my preemptive responses)

oh no...when i put my information on the cloud, the government will have access to it!!!
if you are worried about this...take the extra step which is good practice anyway: store your files in an encrypted truecrypt file. back that up.

carbonite doesn't backup video
this annoys me. not as much that they don't do it, but that they don't make it explicitly known prior to sign-up. to circumvent this, however, append a non-standard file extension to your video files. for instance...rename homevideo_20110407.mkv to homevideo_20110407.mkv.myvid. obviously this will require a little time and the extra renaming step...but if you remember to do it just after importing from your camera, it will become habit and won't be that bad. additionally, you can tell your computer to 'always open' with your default video viewer and the non-standard extension shouldn't inconvenience you too much.

just backup to an external hdd
i certainly understand the logic here...and think that external hdd backup is very important, but as a supplemental backup...not a sole backup. the reason is that, in case of localized catastrophe, such as home fire or home robbery, your data could all be unavailable at once -- including your backup.



Google is now backing up your pictures (and videos?). You can back up everything (unlimited # photos) at ~3 megapixels (likely, your photos will be downsized) or as many as you can fit at whatever resolution on 15 GB -- pay for more space or switch to ~3 megapixel resizes if you fill it up.

I'm using it as another backup. I'd rather have all my stuff backed up at lower resolution and still have SOMETHING if my primary copy and backup copies somehow both disappear simultaneously.

For people who have less than 5,000 (6 megapixel) pictures and or don't see themselves taking more than that, the 15 GB version is probably better since you get full quality. You can print reasonable 8"x10" photos from a 6 megapixel shot, so you can probably do a 5"x7" with 3 MP.

You'll have to have a google account, probably update to G+ (public profile), and potentially install Picasa to use this.


Agamemnon the builder said...

Thought i'd leave a small additional comment.
Hard disk failures do occur, but as a student, i find my laptop more susceptible to viruses, infact to the point of having to re-install windows a lot.
One simple back-up option only for viruses would be to back up your data on a seperate partition from your windows partition (Generally C) and then when re-installing windows only choose the c Partition. The data on your other partitions will be untouched. May seem obvios to most but i'm surprised at the no. of people who dont know this simple fix.
(And for those next-next setup people, there is a step in the windows installation asking about pre-existing partitions and where should windows be installed, and which drives to format).

Agamemnon the builder said...

sorry to hijack your post chapman.

Nick Chapman said...

Thanks for the feedback!